The disability film has always been ripe for exploitation. There is little an actor likes more than to don the cloak of the handicapped. Knowing that he or she has already stolen a march on the public's emotions. All too often this results in a pornography of the disabled. The audience adopts the position of the voyeur.
So it is with trepidation that we watched the opening sequence of the Pedernera’s Pies En La Tierra, showing the mumbling, wheelchair-bound Juancho as he goes about his daily struggle. He gets by looking after a roadside shack which primarily sells fish, caught by a young acolyte. To return to the home he shares with his aged mother, he has to go cross country and then downriver by boat. The shack they share is rundown and as basic as basic gets. Juancho mumbles a lot about what a lovely day it's going to be tomorrow. Then his mother dies and he sets out on a trip, just him and his wheelchair, heading off into the unknown, in search of a distant cousin.
The moment it became clear that this was a film which might truly get under the skin of its central character, rather than exploiting him, was when the camera captures Juancho’s purely instinctual decision to leave. In the moment, once the decision has been taken, we can see there’s no turning back. Thereafter, the film is on effortlessly strong ground. Juancho, his wheelchair and a dog that decides to accompany him, are all alone in the middle of nowhere, Argentina. Anything could happen, and the film is not afraid to play on this tension, notably in a sequence where he loses his wheelchair. His progress is painstaking and perilous and utterly compelling.
This is a road movie and there are clear echoes of several similar films. The Straight Story; Las Acacias, Sorin's Camino de Dan Diego, even Sallas’ The Motorcycle Diaries. In common with Sallas’ Che tale, it is unafraid to examine the more spiritual aspects of the narrative. But where Sallas sought to create a hagiography of Che as he moved through an indigent Latin American landscape, Pedernera emphasises his protagonist’s weakness, and the strength of those he meets. When Juancho hooks up with a charismatic Christian folk singer who encourages him to come out of his shell, (a terrific performance from Carlos Belloso), the film’s spiritual element becomes even more overt. The film rises to the challenge, creating a moment of astonishing lyricism which manages to fuse Belloso’s Christian rock with an outdoor cinema screening and Juancho’s gradually perceived need to finally come to terms with his disability.
The mumbling incoherence of the beautifully acted Juancho (Francisco Cataldi) inverts the tradition of the eloquent disabled outsider, thereby placing at the heart of the film a completely believable portrait of a man who knows he has to overcome, but who isn’t sure what he has to overcome or how he’s supposed to do it.
Pies en La Tierra is now on release in Argentina. It was by pure chance that I caught the film. But one can only hope it achieves the recognition it deserves. It’s rare to stumble upon a film and find yourself captivated, but first-time director Pedernera has pulled off something remarkable.